Citing gains, Vision Coalition of Delaware rolls out a second 10-year plan

A member of the coalition leads a discussion at a Dover Community Conversations group.  Financial contributions to produce Student Success 2025, including meeting support, printed materials and policy experts, were made by the Delaware Business Roundtable Education Committee, J.P. Morgan Chase, and the Rodel Foundation of Delaware. // Photo Courtesy of Matt Amis
A member of the coalition leads a discussion at a Dover Community Conversations group. Financial contributions to produce Student Success 2025, including meeting support, printed materials and policy experts, were made by the Delaware Business Roundtable Education Committee, J.P. Morgan Chase, and the Rodel Foundation of Delaware. // Photo Courtesy of Matt Amis

By Christi Milligan

In 2006 the Vision Coalition of Delaware launched “Vision 2015,” a strategic plan for public education that asked citizens to “imagine the best schools in the world for every Delaware student … no exceptions … no excuses.”

Nearly a decade later, coalition members are celebrating upward trends in test scores and graduation rates, and action on 70 percent of their recommended initiatives, including the adoption of the Smarter Balanced Assessment, Common Core Standards, teacher support initiatives and critical investments in Early Childhood Education programs.

Next month, the coalition will roll out a second 10-year plan that will focus on the skills and attributes the coalition believes every educated Delawarean should have by 2025.

“It’s a multi-year journey with lots of phases,” said Vision Coalition Chairman Ernie Dianastasis. “It’s a lifelong commitment by those involved to keep improving and making education stronger.”

But coalition members differ from critics in the measuring stick used to gauge progress of Delaware’s public education system. While the coalition looks at gains in initiatives and programs, critics extract numbers.

“Our SAT scores were the worst in the nation,” said Charlie Copeland, a former Delaware Senate Minority Leader. “None of the real goals of raising Delaware achievement happened.”

Delaware sits 28th on the national stage in reading and math, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In addition, SAT scores, widely considered the bellwether for college preparedness, indeed averaged at the bottom of the national pile in 2014.

But a closer look at those numbers shows that Delaware, which offers free SAT tests to all students — boasted nearly a 100 percent participation rate, while top-scoring states had just single-digit participation.

Former Wilmington Charter School Director Ron Russo suggested that while the coalition is pursuing admirable initiatives, the questions remains, “What are we getting out of this?”

Russo said that without systemic change that offers school administrators and teachers the option to customize initiatives offered statewide, there is little measurable progress.

“What did we get,” said Copeland, who added that he has no personal issue with any members of the coalition. “We’ve let the ‘Delaware Way’ become an excuse for mediocrity but I want our schools to be top five in the nation.”

But Dianastasis and education officials say those numbers are just part of the equation, although it was metrics that drew the original 28 steering committee stakeholders together in 2006. Back then, they pointed to graduation rates of 60 percent and the fact that Delaware ranked 8th in spending but 27th in performance.

“We felt we could do so much better if we built a plan that we could all buy into,” said Dianastasis.

Comparatively, today’s graduation rates were at 80 percent in 2013-2014; Delaware now ranks tenth in spending but 28th in performance.

In addition, while the 2013-14 Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System (DCAS) showed that seven out of 10 Delaware students are proficient in reading and math, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), showed that just four out of ten students are proficient.

“Some of the people in Delaware might be looking at the state scores and thinking that’s pretty good, but our kids have to compete nationally and internationally,” said Russo.

Dianastasis said some of those figures could indeed be better.

“Has Delaware knocked it out of the park on every measure,” he asked. “No.”

He conceded a flat performance on national measures like NAEP, but pointed to a Stanford study that showed the state’s growth is the third fastest in the country.

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Bigger Picture and Race to the Top

While numbers tell one part of the education story, Dianastasis touts a broader picture of achievements under Vision 2015. These achievements met specific goals hammered out in the original plan after several years of research and participation from Delaware teachers, principals, parents and business and community representatives.

Dianastatis said the result was six critical building blocks or touchstones identified by the coalition as areas where they could focus their efforts and make a difference.

He added that the coalition was content to take a lead role on some projects, such as the application process and presentation for Race to the Top federal grant in 2011, and an influencer role in others, including recommendations related to empowering principals that resulted in initiatives that include Delaware Academy for School Leadership, Schools that Lead, Delaware Leadership Project, provided incentives to take part in such training, and launched Ed Insight portal.

“Race to the Top validated that we were focused on the right things,” said Dianastasis, of Delaware’s first place win in 2011 to secure a $119 million federal grant to pursue education reforms that ultimately included Common Core standards and instruction. Four of the Vision 2015 goals coincided with priority goals under Race to the Top.

Most critically, the win infused the Delaware Department of Education with the funding to carry out its related initiatives.

Delaware was also the winner of a second federal grant, Race to the Top — Early Learning Challenge, which gave the state $50 million to expand early learning initiatives, particularly the Delaware Stars for Early Success quality rating program.

Delaware Education Secretary Mark Murphy said it was the coalition that advocated for the grants, which were used in tandem with an additional $22 million in state funding to develop early childhood programs.

“Early childhood education is the biggest economic lever we have,” said Murphy, who praised the coalition’s efforts and said they brought a substantive energy and focus to the issues of Delaware education.

“Today, Delaware Stars programs serve roughly 10,000 children with high needs and as of 2015, 58 percent of those children are enrolled in highly rated Stars programs up from 5 percent in 2011 — more than a ten-fold increase,” said Dianastais.

According to coalition officials, other statewide accomplishments that grew out of its recommendations include:

• DPAS II, Delaware’s statewide educator evaluation system.

• Statewide recruitment strategies.

• More rigorous teacher preparation standards and coaching.

• Delaware Academy for School Leadership.

• Delaware Leadership Project for aspiring principals.

• Charter Performance Framework.

Dianastasis also cited the 30-year low dropout rate, and said the state has seen a 13 percent jump among 18- to 24-year-olds who seek some education beyond high school.

“That’s more than a 13 percent increase, which again, is a game changer for thousands of young people annually in terms of their long-term earning potential,” he said.

“Vision 2015 was never about 2015,” said Murphy. “It was about identifying what were the key things we need to focus on to improve Delaware education for our kids. Now we have to ask what’s the next chapter of work for our state.”

Officials from The Vision Coalition team interviewed 4,000 Delawareans to develop “Student Success 2025.” Local meetings like a 2014 Community Conversation at the Wilmington Public Library generated discussions and recommendations for the plan. // Photo by Jason Minto
Officials from The Vision Coalition team interviewed 4,000 Delawareans to develop “Student Success 2025.” Local meetings like a 2014 Community Conversation at the Wilmington Public Library generated discussions and recommendations for the plan. // Photo by Jason Minto

A New Plan

What’s next is Student Success 2025, a new vision based on research and interviews with 4,000 Delawareans, including 1,000 students, classroom teachers, the DSEA Executive Leadership Team, as well as PTA leadership and community organizations.

The new plan — which will launch Sept. 16 at Delaware Technical Community College’s Terry Campus — will leverage successes of Vision 2015 with a focus on the projected skills Delawareans should have in a decade.

“We asked, ‘What skills and attributes should an educated Delawarean have in 2025?’” said Dianastatis. “We wanted their perspective — the students, policy makers, recent graduates, arts community, special education community, and others.”

Dianastasis said the answers, though wide-ranging, were distilled to a concept called The North Star, the “beacon” for recommendations that ultimately focused on two recurring themes: personalized learning and enhancement of strengths.

“Instead of focusing on where a kid struggles, we need to explore what kids are really good at. Can they be excelling and thriving at what they’re good at and did the system prepare them for that?”

Other major themes include providing support for the whole child; encouraging collaboration across sectors, grade level, and between families and schools’ elevating the value of the teaching profession in the community; and securing adequate and flexible funding.

Implemented in phases, coalition officials said funding for the plan could in part be offset in existing budgets, such as educational resources available online.

Lamont Browne is the director of EastSide Charter School in Wilmington and a new member of the coalition.  The first charter to be founded in cooperation with a public housing, EastSide has experienced a 30 percent increase in the number of students who test proficient or better in reading since 2011 and a 26 percent increase in math.

He credits rigorous hiring practices and a student-oriented mindset to the success at the 500-student school. As a member of the coalition, he said he’s pleased with the way members jumped on the same page and identified priorities for Student Success 2025.

“They’ve recognized that a proposed plan or set of ideas can’t just be ours, it needs to be the entire state’s,” said Browne. “We’re making sure every voice, teacher, leader and citizen is heard. There’s lots of community in this.”

He said he doesn’t tow a coalition line, but is intentional about supporting what is best for the kids.

“I have never felt compelled to speak about something I didn’t believe in.”

Dianastasis said the coalition has a ways to go to ensure that kids are ready for the global marketplace of tomorrow.

“But we are very proud of the progress we have made and we are very fortunate to have everyone, the range of public and private leaders at the table, we need to keep this work moving,” said Dianastasis. “It won’t happen any other way.”

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